What you need to know before your first trip abroad
Travel is unpredictable, and sometimes that’s a good thing. You spot a humpback whale during your boat tour, for example. Other times, those unpredictable travel moments are utterly aggravating, like when bad weather cancels your flight or the hotel you’ve booked can’t seem to find your reservation.
Obviously you want to minimize the frustrating experiences as much as you can. This is especially important if it’s your first time travelling outside the country and you might not know what to expect. From passports to jet lag, here are a few tips for a smooth first trip abroad.
Apply for a passport early
Passports can take up to six weeks to process, and as a first-timer, you’ll have to book an appointment to apply for one in person at a passport acceptance facility, so make sure to apply early. If you need a passport sooner, you can have it expedited in two to three weeks, but it will cost you an extra $60. Before your appointment, make sure you have the required documents ready (proof of citizenship, a valid form of ID, photocopies of both, and form DS11). Make sure to include the application fee in your travel budget too — your first passport will cost you around $150.
Not all facilities will take your passport photo on-site, so you might need to bring one with you. For passport photos, “the post office is a common first option,” said Elise Fitzsimmons, publisher and co-founder of the travel magazine Unearth Women, “but the lines are often long, and you may need to schedule an appointment.” She added, “I live in a rural area, and getting passport and visa photos taken at FedEx has been a lifesaver. The turnaround time is about 15 minutes.” You can also get a quick passport photo at most drugstore photo departments, like CVS or Walgreens.
Staying awhile? You might need a visa
You won’t need a visa in most countries unless you’re staying for more than 90 days, but there are a few countries with shorter requirements. Aruba and the Philippines require a visa for tourists staying longer than 30 days, for example. Visa information for different countries is available on the State Department’s website. Some demand a visa even for tourists to visit. “In some cases, it’s possible to book a flight without entering a visa number,” Fitzsimmons said. “But if you don’t have the required visa to enter a country, you’ll have to take the next flight home.”
Save cash with boutique hostels
Despite their long-standing reputation of being grungy crash pads, some hostels are downright luxurious. In recent years, there’s been a trend toward boutique hostels: upscale options with cafes, fun community activities, and well-decorated rooms.
You’ll still have to share a space (and a bathroom) with fellow travelers, but you’ll save a wad of cash. Some of the most upscale hostels charge only $30 a night, depending on the destination. Start your search on sites like HostelGeeks.com and HostelWorld.com.
Set a travel alert on your credit cards
Before using your credit or debit card abroad, call your carrier and place a travel alert on your account (you may also be able to do this on their website). This way, the credit card company won’t mistake your foreign transactions for fraud and freeze your card.
While you’re at it, ask about your bank or credit card company’s policy on foreign transaction fees, too. Many cards charge a fee for customers to use the card abroad (although the best credit cards don’t), usually as a small percentage of every purchase. Between all the restaurant stops and souvenir shopping, these fees can add up fast. If your card comes with this fee, consider applying for a card with no foreign transaction fees before your trip.
Be wary of bank fees
Most foreign countries have easily accessible ATMs that will accept credit and debit cards from US banks. But before you leave for your trip, look up your bank’s fees and policies for withdrawing cash at international ATMs and see if they’re part of the Global ATM Alliance Network or Allpoint network. If so, and you use an in-network ATM, you can at least avoid usage fees, though you’ll probably still be charged an international transaction fee.
Prepare for jet lag
The most effective way to beat jet lag, according to a study published in Sleep Medicine Clinics, is to set your circadian rhythm — the internal clock that tells you when to be sleepy and when to be alert — to your new time zone as fast as possible. “We recommend resetting the circadian clock at least partially toward the destination time zone before flying,” the study’s authors write.
This can be tricky if you live in San Francisco and you’re travelling to London, but the closer you can get to your destination time, the better. That might mean going to bed earlier or getting up early, depending on the time zone.
Have a transportation plan from the airport
When your flight lands in your destination city, you’ll probably be itching to get out of the airport. In addition to taxi service, most international airports are equipped with direct commuter trains or shuttles that will take you to the city center, and you’ll follow the baggage claim signs to the appropriate shuttle or train stop. At London’s Heathrow Airport, for example, you can take the Heathrow Express to get to Central London. And the Leonardo Express shuttle at Fiumicino airport will take you to Rome’s central train station, Termini.
Of course, most airports also have cheaper public transportation options that may be a little trickier to navigate. You can take the London Underground from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line, for example, but you’ll have to figure out which stops and transfers to make to get to your final destination. Google Maps is an excellent navigator, but research your route beforehand so you’re prepared upon arrival (especially if the airport lacks free Wi-Fi). You can find train prices, schedules and connecting shuttle information on the airport’s website, or use a database like iFly or World Airport Guides, which list transit information for airports around the world.
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